'I tried cryotherapy and this is what happened'

Can a freezing cold chamber speed up recovery?
Can a freezing cold chamber speed up recovery?

If you are clued up on the topics of sport injury recovery, rejuvenation, beauty or a healthy lifestyle in general, you might have heard about cryotherapy.

Cryotherapy, more generally known as cold therapy, is a method of medical therapy involving extremely cold temperatures. The science behind it is simple – cold reduces inflammation and helps with circulation. When you place an ice-pack on an injured muscle, it’s also a form of cryotherapy.

According to Professor Mike Lambert from from the Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine (ESSM) at the Sport Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA) in Newlands, Cape Town, treating sport injuries and aiding recovery through means of low temperatures has been one of the most prominent methods for a long time. Elite athletes emerge themselves in ice baths to help speed up muscle recovery.

Trying whole-body cryotherapy 

Cryozone is a company specialising in cryochambers. Instead of applying cold topically to a limited area of the body, your entire body is subjected to sub-zero temperatures, hence the term "whole-body cryotherapy" (WBC). The temperature of -120°C is reached through liquid nitrogen, a gas capable of achieving temperatures well below freezing point.

Cryozone partners with the company Air Products, which supplies the gas for these chambers.

Finally the time arrives for us to get inside the chamber. We are divided into groups of three and are given cotton shorts and vests to wear, along with mittens, socks, a headband and a mask to limit the amount of liquid nitrogen you inhale. If you have any piercings with metal attachments, you are advised to remove them as the metal can freeze your skin. I simply covered mine up, and there was no problem.

Adverse reactions to cryotherapy can happen, and WBC should be avoided if you suffer from:

  • Hypertension
  • Acute or recent myocardial infarction
  • Arrhythmia
  • Cardiac disease
  • Thrombosis
  • Uncontrolled seizures
  • Lung disorders
  • Bleeding disorders
  • Acute kidney infections

First we enter the pre-chamber to get us used to the situation – this mini-chamber is chilled to -70°C – enough to get me shivering. Here you start getting accustomed to the temperature. At first, I feel claustrophobic and it’s hard to see in a fog of liquid nitrogen. I comfort myself with the knowledge that I can open the doors at any given moment. Then we enter the real deal, -120°C, for a period of just under three minutes. It’s cold, but not unbearable. I have goosebumps and my skin is burning slightly – but it doesn’t feel worse than a quick dip in the icy waters at Clifton.

As I exit the chamber, I feel refreshed, similar to the feeling I have after a quick dip in the ocean (and I do enjoy a freezing dip every once in a while). My exposed skin is red, but nothing out of the ordinary. My nose is freezing. I am united with a fluffy, warm gown and my body temperature is measured: 19°C. Prior to the treatment, I measured in at 32.7°C.

This rapid, yet controlled, drop in body temperature is meant to improve circulation, fight inflammation, speed up the metabolism, and even improve the appearance of the skin.

Energised and niggle-free

I arrive home and I feel energised – words I don’t often utter on a Friday night. To test my body, I decide to go for a short run around the neighbourhood – I already did three training runs during the week and still had a slight niggle from hip bursitis. I lace up and hit the road – the usual stiffness in my right hip socket is gone; I can breathe deeper and my pace is faster than during a normal training run.

Afterwards, I have a raging appetite and fall asleep soundly at the ridiculous hour of 21:00. Did I mention that I started the day with a sinus headache which disappeared when I exited the cryochamber? This could be due to the fact that WBC helps relieve inflammation throughout the body.

I'm pretty sure that regular sessions are needed to experience the full benefit of WBC, but if this is something that will be made available at SSISA, where I'm a member, I will definitely make use of it. Below is an image of me exiting the chamber – note the mask, mittens and headgear. The white smog is the liquid nitrogen inside the chamber. 

exiting the cryochamber

Why whole-body cryotherapy?

Professor Lambert exclaims that recovery is a very important component of sport, not only for elite athletes, but for all of us who exercise and who want to excel in life. And it’s often difficult to achieve optimum muscle recovery as there is not always enough time. Think about it – a rugby player has to be in top shape for games only weeks apart. The long distance runner training for an ultramarathon relies on several back-to-back runs to achieve the optimum mileage.

There is often not enough time for the glycogen in the muscles to be completely restored, which can affect performance.

Professor Lambert's presentation was followed by a talk delivered by Willie Muller, Managing Director of Cryozone. He shared further benefits of WBC, closely linked to pointers highlighted by Professor Lambert.

“Whole-body cryotherapy offers a technological and scientific approach to addressing fatigue, delayed muscle recovery as well as pain and inflammation caused by rigorous training and exercise,” says Muller.

“Within just three minutes in the cryotherapy chamber that’s cooled to -120°C, an athlete can enjoy health benefits such as faster recovery time; reduced muscle pain and inflammation; increased energy levels and muscle strength; as well as improved blood circulation and improved sleep quality.”

“In the extreme cold conditions of a WBC chamber, the body’s physiological responses to exposure are triggered by the sudden decrease in skin temperature. When the brain receives signals registering the extreme low temperature in a WBC chamber, it recognises the impossibility of maintaining the core temperature if normal blood circulation is maintained in the outer layers of the skin. Receptors below the surface of the skin then direct the body’s nervous system to carry out a process called vasoconstriction – a narrowing of the arteries and blood vessels,” says Lee-Ann Diab, a sport scientist and recovery specialist.

She adds, “The process leads to a reduction in the flow of blood to tired or damaged tissue, effectively shutting down the inflammation process and the development of swelling or bruising around an injury. At the same time, blood is retained in the body’s core and is flushed through the normal cycle and becomes enriched with oxygen, enzymes and nutrients as well as receiving an influx of hormones via the body’s endocrine system. Once the brain identifies that a 'normal temperature’ is reached, having exited the whole-body cryotherapy chamber, the reverse process called vasodilation then returns the enriched blood from the core to the extremities. This process coupled with the release of hormones provides for a rush of endorphins, promoting a feeling of wellbeing and positivity in the body.”

Image credits: iStock; supplied by Sabio Communications

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